This couple helps parents cope with the ‘smog of racism’ from their living room

"There's nothing really geared for parents to deal with this sort of racism."

Anne Sullivan embraces her son Jay during Denver's Martin Luther King Jr. parade, January 2017. CREDIT: JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images
Anne Sullivan embraces her son Jay during Denver's Martin Luther King Jr. parade, January 2017. CREDIT: JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images

Like clockwork on the last Tuesday of the month, Melissa Giraud and Andrew Grant-Thomas huddle shoulder to shoulder in front of a webcam on their computer. With the press of a button, they welcome an unknowable number of people into their home and lives for a frank discussion about race relations and raising children in America.

It’s a series of candid, open to the public conversations that rarely take place elsewhere involving the hot-button subject. Giraud and Grant-Thomas host the webinars because, like many of the parents participating in their online discussions, they’ve found themselves at a loss for words when talking to their children about the often confusing and confounding issues around racism.

According to a 2016 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), half of the nation’s adults said the presidential election — and the divisive discussions of race that coincided with it — was a very or somewhat significant source of stress in their lives.

Dr. Erlanger A. Turner, a licensed clinical psychologist in Houston, Texas, wrote in a 2016 Psychology Today article that the stress felt by adults during the presidential campaign spread to their children as well.

“With the influx of social media use, it is inevitable that children and adults will be exposed to political topics and issues that were expressed during the campaign,” Turner wrote, citing the APA study. “The APA survey noted that the most stress was reported among Latinos (56 percent) followed by Whites (52 percent), Native Americans (52 percent), Blacks (46 percent), and Asians (43 percent).”

Giraud said she and Grant-Thomas weren’t thinking of Trump when they began, but their work has been bolstered by the way the president talks about race. “Even though we started doing this work long before he was elected, there are more people coming to [the webinars] since he’s been president because there’s been an increase in racial aggression and it’s high-profile news in the media,” she said.

Giraud and Grant-Thomas’ webinar is a product of EmbraceRace, the online community they created in 2016 to assist parents, educators, and others concerned with how children deal with racial issues.

Earlier this week, Allison Briscoe-Smith, an Oakland, California-based child psychologist who specializes in trauma and ethnic minority mental health, led a discussion to help parents “Nurture Joy and Resilience in a World With Too Much Aggression and Violence.”

At one point during the webinar, a woman who self-identified as a “white momma to two adopted brown boys,” explained that her racial awareness makes her “hot and quick-tempered” in defense of her sons. “I want to be sure my black sons are learning to be resilient, which I’m not,” she said, asking Briscoe-Smith how she might deal with this herself.

Briscoe-Smith applauded “Momma Bear” for wanting to protect her sons, but cautioned her against “burning out” with rage at racial injustice given the prevalence of injustice in society. Rather, she suggested the mother talk with her boys and get their opinions about the best ways to deal with racial slights.

“You have to actually believe that our kids could be responsible and equipped to come up with a solution,” she told “Momma Bear.” “Lastly I would say it’s OK to narrate to the kids that you are trying your best and… tell them [you’re] hoping the world will treat you differently but that you’re going to be equipped to deal with it.”

Previous webinar topics have explored how parents raise racially inclusive children in segregated neighborhoods, read picture books containing racist images, deal with the realities of undocumented and mixed-status households, and more. Last year, for example, they hosted a two-part discussion, spanning July and August, to delve into how parents can help children deal with racialized violence.

“Our key terms are race, kids, and community,” Grant-Thomas told me during a conversation following this week’s webinar. “Even if what we’re doing is entirely virtual, the concepts of community and kids are still at the forefront. We want to give our children and other parents the tools to be racial justice advocates in our society.”

“There’s nothing really geared for parents to deal with this sort of racism.”

The monthly webinars attract hundreds of registrants, though Grant-Thomas and Giraud estimate about a fourth of those who register actually participate in the hour-long discussions. At this week’s webinar, Briscoe-Smith, who is something of a frequent guest having participated in three previous discussions, attracted 500 registrants, who engaged in the lively online, typed conversation. Anyone who registers for the webinar will get a follow-up email that includes a link to online discussion and any materials associated with the conversation.

The attendance at these parental support chats has grown, Grant-Thomas and Giraud say, as the president uses his office draw negative media attention to racist acts and comments that wiggle their into the questions that kids ask their parents. Trump has a long and documented history of making racist comments, and since moving into the White House he’s continued apace, including attacking black athletes and reporters, mocking Nigerians as living in “huts,” defending white supremacists in Charlottesville, denouncing Muslim Americans as fundamentally untrustworthy, and falsely claiming that Mexico sends criminals to the U.S.

More recently, Giraud noted that many parents sought their advice following recent reports about Trump’s profane and disparaging comments about Haiti and African nations. “This is a do-it-yourself moment for parenting,” she said. “There’s nothing really geared for parents to deal with this sort of racism.”

Grant-Thomas said there seems to be no relief from the spate of news events that provoke alarm among parents. “When Charlottesville happened, a lot of parents were at a loss about how to explain what that was about,” Grant-Thomas said, referring to last summer’s rally by the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacists, and Neo-Nazis in support of a Confederate memorial statue. “It’s not enough to dismiss it as just racist people, nor would it be wise to ignore it because kids will hear about it at school or on the playground. But what do you say and how do you say it to young kids?”

Giraud said it’s not easy, even for Grant-Thomas and her, to find the language to discuss such issues that’s appropriate for their daughters, Lola, 9, and Lena, 7. Despite believing they had a firm understanding of race in America and a willingness to talk about it because of the the melange of racial and cultural identities they share.

Grant-Thomas was born in Jamaica and came to the United States at age 7 with his parents. He holds a Ph.D in political science and his academic and professional work has focused on U.S. race relations. Giraud is a first-generation bi-racial American, the daughter of a father born on the Caribbean island of Domenica and a French-Canadian mother. Giraud taught Spanish and English to fourth graders in Chicago and later became a correspondent for National Public Radio, reporting on issues of equity and immigration in Chicago.

Their personal and professional lives made them comfortable engaging in conversations with family, friends, and strangers alike about how race, whether explicitly or implicitly, impacted them and the lives of nearly everyone they encounter. But their ease in discussing race changed dramatically when they began raising their daughters.

Grant-Thomas said for all their reading and study on racial issues, they were dumbfounded when their daughters asked difficult questions. “After becoming a parent, I realized that I needed help,” he said.

“Everyone was dealing with the same smog of racism.”

Giraud agreed. “We discovered that as easy as it might have been for us to talk about race as adults, we still had a hard time with it as parents,” she said. “We also discovered that other parents were having the same challenges.”

Specifically, Giraud said her participation on a diversity committee at the girls’ pre-school and kindergarten led her to forming a parenting and race awareness group at the school, which became a popular support for many of the parents and teachers. “Everyone was dealing with the same smog of racism,” she said. “It was more than just parents talking about school policies, we wanted to talk about what was going on in the world, outside of the building and how to deal with the toxicity of racism. And we had no resources to do that effectively.”

Inspired by the turnout at a one-off, community conversation at the girls’ school that they organized, Giraud and Grant-Thomas decided to create EmbraceRace by hanging out a virtual shingle in cyberspace. The online operation is a hosted project of The Proteus Fund, a progressive public foundation based in Amherst, Massachusetts. Thomas had served as director of programs at the fund before leaving in 2016 to run EmbraceRace.

Grant-Thomas and Giraud launched their project in 2016 with a Facebook page, inviting like-minded people to join them in online conversations. Last year, they expanded their home-based operation into hosting the monthly online webinars. Via their social media outreach, webinars and online blog, Grant-Thomas estimates some 30,000 people in all 50 states are part of their growing community.

“We’re trying to build a community of parents, grandparents, teachers, and guardians who want to raise children who are thoughtful, informed, and brave about race,” Grant-Thomas said. “For us, the concept of community runs the gamut, but the one that we’re specifically trying to develop and nurture is multi-racial and targeted to parents of young children of color because we’ve found that’s where the greatest needs exist.”